Hong Sang-soo: Can Images Go On Without Thought?

“We’re repeating images imprinted on us by others.” – Woman on the Beach

Images are present, manifest. They do not present something to us, they are not manifestations of something. Rather, they have their own individuality, their singularity. They exist outside of us, and go on existing after we die. Of course, we should not forget that we are images ourselves. And so when a ‘bad’ image presents itself to me, I am negatively affected, just as I would be if a ‘bad’ person presents himself/herself to me. Our psyche is itself an image which presents itself to us.

Hong Sang-soo’s films are frequently divided into two halves which are not entirely similar, not completely different. The two parts are often permutations of each other: same timespan, different characters; same character, different timespans; even same narrative, different characters. The element that remains the same functions less as a constant than a dependent variable – it is changed each time the independent variables (different situations, different characters) are changed. In other words, it is only the symbol of the variables that remains the same. The film director in Woman on the Beach encounters two different women. Each affects him in the same way; he sees the image of the previous woman in the new.

That is because we encounter images as a taxonomy, always already a pattern – there is an image of a man, an image of a woman, an image of a beach, etc. (Even an unclassifiable image is already classified.) We begin by perceiving archetypes, things that we already know. Images are not linguistic; it is our way of encountering them, that reduces them to generalities, to abstractions, to symbols (representation). Representation allows images to transcend space and time – the director sees a new woman, but already he sees in her shades of the previous woman, already he feels that he can understand her. We can understand this through the common process of writing a script, which is completely different from making a film. In writing a script, the screenwriter reduces a human being to his/her attributes: there is a woman, she is in her thirties, she is proud and stubborn. On the other hand, when making a film, it is not a woman, but this woman (and specifically, this woman in this place at this moment in time); she is a whole that cannot be fully accounted for by its parts. So of course, when the director encounters the new woman, we realize that she is a completely different person from the previous woman. The film director in Woman on the Beach cannot see this, and that is why he loses both women.

The folly of Hong’s men, is that they see each woman as being the same – they fall in love with the sameness (the abstract, the Ideal) of each woman they meet, thereby negating the individual altogether. To them, history always repeats itself – but we realize (from the films’ points of view) that this is not because images repeat themselves, but because these men let different images affect them in exactly the same way. In other words, the characters do not realize that they are variables themselves, that they are not constant, that they change each time they meet a different person. Images are different each time; they are far from abstractions.

But how then to restore the individuality of each woman, if we’re doomed to think in terms of abstractions? How do we see singularity in cinema? Firstly, there are the bodies of the actors; and in these bodies we see recognizable archetypes – man, woman, young, old etc. Hong’s mastery is in going from these archetypes to singularity; that is, going from the recognizable to the unrecognizable. In this respect, much more so than any European auteur, Hong’s cinema most resembles Ozu. These bodies, refreshingly inexpressive of any psychology, only have their gestures – the way they cough, the way they move their heads when they turn to talk, the way they cry – and even more so than Ozu, these gestures do not have an identifiable origin – that is, we can hardly tell that they originate from Hong himself (although he is exact in his direction): there is no one way that the characters cry, cough, or laugh. This is because, absent of character psychology (the despotic signifier in too many American-style films), the character can only express himself/herself, in all of his/her glorious contradictions. (Here, we are not talking about the expressivity of the actor, but of the character – an amalgamation of the narrative’s circumstances, the actor’s gestures and body. In other words, a full-bodied being of the character, which endlessly multiplies itself; it escapes representation, which is always reduction.) And so, we see in Hong’s films, delightfully real characters, who retain the ability to surprise us, and even themselves. We see how Hong’s point of view differs from his characters. His characters view themselves as rigid, unmoving plates on which images are imprinted (reprinted) onto them. Hong, on the other hand, sees them as fluid, in flux, constantly changing as the circumstances around them change. In other words, somewhat paradoxically, it is because Hong doesn’t see them as fixed individuals, that he sees their true individuality, their singularity – which is a being in this moment, in this place, because of this reason.

So it is not true that Hong’s films can take place anywhere, that locations are meaningless. His refusal to name things according to their archetypes, including and especially with places, can be seen most strongly in Night and Day, the only film not set in Korea. Unlike Woody Allen, who only chooses to see Paris in its broadest archetypes (Midnight in Paris), Hong does not reduce the city at all. The city is interminably present, even unbearably so. It even infiltrates the characters’ habits – lost in a city he doesn’t know, the painter is drenched by a passing outpour. The city is allowed to affect the characters, even before it is judged/classified/reduced by either the characters, the filmmaker, or the audience. Its relationship is a purely physical one. Isn’t it cinema’s destiny to capture this relationship? Cinema, with its automatic images, captures the physical presence of things whole, before any concepts or percepts – that is, before language and, even, before thought. It is this physical presence that grounds the concepts/archetypes/contradictions; it contains them in its bodily form.

Secondly, there are the gestures of the narrative. The structure of Hong’s plots are strong, rigid – they themselves are paradigms with which we perceive events. We see recurring patterns – even recurring objects, like the rock in Like You Know It All, the red baseball cap in Ha Ha Ha – patterns which could become tools for us to grasp the reality of the situation. But his narratives (how the scenes progress, the events that happen) are, on the other hand, random and meaningless. We might try to make sense of these events, put them in order, even put them side by side to compare (like Oki in Oki’s Movie). But in the end, like his characters, we have to admit that ‘[we] don’t know it all.’ In fact, the more rigid the structures of the plots, the more random these events come to seem. That is, the big picture is always slightly beyond our grasp. Beyond our grasp, but not inaccessible. We will never know, for example, if the film festival co-ordinator in Like You Know It All was ever raped, or if the woman in The Power of Kangwon Province was really murdered. We hear of these events from our limited point of view – even though, it is clear, this point of view is much more expansive than that of his characters. We think we know a person, a character, but we don’t know him/her at all.

This limit is formally best expressed by the zoom. The zoom does away with montage within a scene; instead of cutting closer or wider, Hong uses the zoom lens to zero in on what we see. Montage reconstructs a unity out of disparate parts. Zooms, on the other hand, break down the unity of the shot into smaller and smaller units. In Hong’s films, there is a unity that is already presumed; it exists, it is real, it is accessible. But the zoom makes it clear that at any one time, we are only seeing a fraction of it. In other words, it reinforces the notion of a ‘frame’ in cinema – the camera lens frames information in and out at the same time. Yet, this limited point of view does not discount the truth in any unit. When the camera zooms into a character, we know that he/she is as much part of the contiguity in the scene; he/she is merely singled out, isolated, enlarged, focused upon. Every image then contains part of the whole (the truth) – it is merely the point of view that has shifted.

Actual montage in his films then becomes, as in most elliptical cinema (Ozu’s included), separations, gaps. They are stops standing between images; they separate images rather than unite them. They do not reconstruct a lost unity that can be thought; instead, they demonstrate that the whole of this unity is outside of thought, outside of knowledge; they confront us with the limit of our thought. During a cut between two shots, an eternity can be made to pass, reality can be irrevocably changed (as the cut back to reality in Night and Day‘s fantastic dream sequences). Hong’s montage cuts open a space, a void between thought, allowing the impossibility of thought (its limit, the image’s limit) to become visible. What they present us is the image of the unthought, the shadow, the underside of what can be thought. Isn’t this the double that Hong’s characters inadvertently find themselves encountering? Isn’t the doubling of Hong’s films an effect of this bearing?

Hahaha. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Sang-kyung Kim, So-ri Moon and Kang-woo Kim. 2010.
Like You Know It All. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Tae-woo Kim, Ji-won Uhm and Hyun-jung Go. 2009.
Midnight in Paris. By Woody: Allen. Dir. Woody: Allen. Perf. Owen: McAdams, Rachel Wilson and Kathy Bates. Prods. Letty Aronson, et al. 2011.
Night and Day. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Sabine Crossen, Jérémie Elkaïm and Ju-bong Gi. Prods. Yong-bae Choi, et al. 2008.
Oki’s Movie. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Yu-mi Jeong and Seon-gyun Lee. Jeonwonsa Film. 2010.
The Power of Kangwon Province. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Jong-hak Baek, Jaehyun Chun and Sunyoung Im. Miracin Korea Film Company. 1998.
Woman on the Beach. By Sang-soo Hong. Dir. Sang-soo Hong. Perf. Seung-woo Kim, Hyun-jung Go and Seon-mi Song. Prods. Jason Chae, Jin-a Cho and Jung-Wan Oh. 2006.